I have come away to be beside the sea. This weekend I am staying in a family home Airbnb in a room with a desk and WiFi in St Leonard’s on Sea with the express purpose of getting some serious writing done on my PhD research. I’m having a lovely time so far. It’s a beautiful room with lots of light and a lovely view of the garden. I’ve written all morning and I’ve just walked down to the beach for a fish lunch. Hastings and St Leonard’s is a fascinating place. I’ve strolled around the old town and loved seeing the medieval and Tudor houses and small alleyways as well as the 18th-century customs house, pubs and assembly rooms and the 21st-century fishing boats. A really interesting mix of an ancient town still functioning as a place for people to work, shop, eat, drink and catch fish.
I’m trying to pin down my PhD research topic this weekend, which might sound crazy as I’m coming up to a year in on my doctorate. However, things are starting to clarify the more and more reading I do and I now think I’m interested less in sites of ‘lost heritage’ but rather about how we, in the heritage sector, narrate the emotional history of places and spaces. I mean, how we nudge, indicate and manipulate visitors to sense a connection with the emotional history of a space. Whether that’s through directly recounting the story of ghosts from the past or over-exaggerated tales of pain, suffering, love, lust, passion – we facilitate access to the secondary narratives we do have about emotional experience happening in a place. I want to explore further how this is done in sites such as battlefields, historic houses, sites of exception, haunted houses and museums explore what we really mean by a place ‘holding’ or ‘retaining’ the emotions of the people who have inhabited it.
My next step, therefore, is to look in the archives of heritage organisations such as the National Trust and English Heritage and track the different interpretation strategies used over time in guidebooks and text panels to explain to visitors the emotional history of their sites. Wish me luck!